Help

Imagine you are walking down the street when you pass an old friend whose head is down, a deep frown etched on her face. You may wish to tell her to ‘cheer up’, hoping to lift her spirits. Telling people how to feel doesn’t make them feel better (it may well do the reverse). Rather, do something to make it better – even if that is listening respectfully.

Consider the behaviour of Joseph in the Bible. He was languishing in an Egyptian jail with two of Pharaoh’s ministers when one morning he notices they were in a foul mood. What did Joseph tell them? Actually, he didn’t tell them anything—instead he asks them a question (Genesis 40:7): “Why are you sad today?” which is their cue to unburden themselves. Joseph did something very profound: he didn’t tell them how to feel; instead he gave them an opportunity to talk about their problems. He realized that in 99 percent of cases people are upset for a reason.

If you care about someone going through a rough patch, find time to listen to him or her. If you are not good at listening, offer a hug or a cake. As novelist E.W. Howe (1853–1937) advised: “When a friend is in trouble, don’t annoy him by asking if there is anything you can do. Think up something appropriate and do it.” It is told of Grand Rebbe Aharon of Belz (1877–1957) that upon return from immersing in the mikveh (ritual bath) one morning, he asked his attendant to prepare a good coffee and some fresh biscuits. The attendant was surprised indeed, as the Rebbe ate little and showed no interest in food. Why now was he insisting on “good” coffee and “fresh” biscuits? The attendant returned with the coffee and cookies as requested, whereupon R. Aharon asked the attendant to deliver the refreshments to the nearby home of a local tailor. The tailor was astounded at this delivery. Why was the Rebbe sending him breakfast? Upon reflection, he recalled that in the mikveh he had groaned: “If only I could have a good coffee with some fresh biscuits, oh, what a delight that would be!” The Rebbe had overheard. The Rebbe didn’t offer his sympathy; he did something about it.

The lesson: Don’t wait to be asked and don’t assume someone else will step forward. R’ Moshe Leib of Sasov taught that no human trait lacks its proper use. “What benefit can there be in heresy?” someone once asked. So that next time someone needs your help you won’t say God will help, but will act as if it is entirely dependent on you.

Judaism put gemilut chassadim, carrying out acts of kindness as one of the three pillars upon which the whole universe stands (Ethics of the Fathers 1:2). Being quick to offer help is one of the three qualities that the Talmud (Yevamot 79a) attributes to the good Jew. Judaism writing offers hundreds of suggestions of how we can help others, from visiting the sick to providing food for the hungry, from teaching others to burying the dead. The unwillingness of the inhabitants of Sodom to help others was the damning crimes that led to their destruction, and it is the kindness that people show to one another that is the good society.

 
History

In Judaic conception, history is not merely the recounting of past events, the record of an ancient past. History is a guide to the here and now, a lesson for our own time. The study of history is not the preserve of specialists but the part of the life of every man and woman who cherishes their spiritual life. History is woven into all aspects of Jewish practice, from the ritual of washing hands to the observance of Passover. In this conception, history is not something to be read, but something to be experience and relived. The blessing recited before carrying out a ritual that pays tribute to a historic event thanks God for performing miracles “in those days in this time,” which has been interpreted to mean that those events of times gone by are repeated in our own time through our recalling them and re-enacting these rituals.

When setting out the reasons for observing the Passover ritual, the Bible states repeatedly (e.g. Exodus 12:26, 13:14; Leviticus 23:43) that this was so the children will know the events surrounding the early history of their people, or that people will remember those events and the lessons that can be derived from them. Similarly, the Bible urges on several occasions (Deuteronomy 4:9, 9:7, 25:17) that we remember and never forget events of the past, sometime seemingly unimportant ones, for in doing so we will also have the ability to make the values inherent in those events live on in us. It is correct that “when reading works of past ages… we are actually transported back to those times” (Iser, 1971 p. 5).

The rabbis (Genesis Rabba 48) taught, “the actions of our forbearers are a guide for their decedents.” The Bible (Deut 32:7) urges “Remember the days of old, contemplate the generations that have passed.” The stories told in the Bible, a Jewish teaching (Genesis Rabba 60) says, are more dear than the laws of the Torah, for they contain important lessons for generations that follow. History is as much about the future as it is about the past: “The study of the slave trade or the Holocaust is not simply an act of academic recreation but… remains a profoundly moral exercise” (Husbands, 1999 p. 61).

Recreating the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) or eating the bitter herbs at the seder (Passover) meal bring the messages of history to life. As educationalists now know, the study of history must “get to the reality of that experience, rather than the recording of fact. Only through such living intimacy can the human condition be known” (Webb, 1992 p. 31).

History is not the study of the dead – dead people, dead cultures, dead civilisations – but the power of the story of the past to continue living in us through the moral lessons they convey. To the surprise of his followers, a great rabbi once declared “one has to live with the times.” Everyone was amazed: was the rabbi suggesting that eternal values should be adapted to suit the prevailing cultural winds? So he explained that the Torah portion of each week should not be read as solely relating to those who lived thousands of years ago, but rather as profound lessons for us today. Apparently, “The trick is to integrate information about ‘then’ with the living experience of reading ‘now’ (Benton, 2000 p. 66). This, it would seem is what Judaism has been trying to do for three millennia.

Humour

What is the point of humour? Of course it should make you smile or laugh; but is that it? The main value of humour is not its ability to divert the person's mind from serious matter. Foolish humour that is devoid of any substance may have comic value, but it does not fulfil its proper purpose. Humour should not just lighten the mind, but enlighten the mind.

Humour, from a Jewish Social Values perspective, should be thought provoking. It should be capable of triggering 'hmm' just as much as 'ha'. Humour allows us to share a powerful or provocative message in a safe manner, whereby the lighter touch enables us to make our point without offence. There should be a moral to the joke.

The Talmud is highly critical of letzanut, mockery or frivolous laughter, saying that those who engage in it distance themselves from the Almighty. The Talmud tells of a dispute about the role of laughter: Rabbi Judah the Prince, known as Rebbi (editor of the first Jewish code, the Mishna), was a solemn and stern person. He did not appreciate the antics of his colleague an expert prankster Bar Kappara. Unable to tolerate his outlandish behaviour, Rebbi didn't invite Bar Kappara to his son's wedding. On one occasion, he even offered Bar Kappara four hundred sacks of wheat to refrain from jesting at a party made in his honour.

Yet, the Talmud also saw the benefit in humour and many great rabbis are described as engaging in laughter. Some Chassidic courts even had 'clowns' or characters famous for their entertaining antics. Indeed, Psalms (100:2) encourages us to "Serve the Lord with joy; approach him with jubilant song." Joy, we are told, 'breaks all boundaries'. The Talmud tells of the great sage Rava who would begin each lesson with an item of humour, following which he would give a serious class.

Humour has its place; mockery, according to Jewish thought, does not. Rabbi Jonah of Gerona explains how mockery undermines decency and faith; it is the threshold of all evil, adds Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Lubavitch. The Talmud notes that "one scoffer can destroy what it took a thousand good men to build." In Ethics of the Fathers (3:13) Rabbi Akiva is recorded as saying that, "laughter and frivolity lead a person to lewdness."

Importantly, humour is not a tool to humiliate or deprecate others. The normal laws against defamation and gossip are not suspended to accommodate mirth! The Biblical 'scoffer' (Proverbs 9:8) sows only strife. As Novaks and Waldoks argue, Jewish humour "precludes laugh 'for free; as in slapstick humour, which derives its laughter from other people's misfortune." Thus, Psalms (1:1) praises the righteous, who avoid "sessions of scorners."

Contrast the above with this remarkable story from the Talmud (Taanit 22a): "Once when Rabbi Beruka met the prophet Elijah in the marketplace, Rabbi Beruka asked him, 'Show me someone who is assured a place in the World to Come'. Elijah pointed to two ordinary looking people, whereupon Rabbi Beruka inquired with them about their occupation. 'We are jesters and we make people laugh when they are sad', they replied."

Bringing happiness to people through humour is a unique gift and is much to be valued, whereas abusing humour to put down or mock others is a subversion of this gift.

 
Husband

When setting out the role of a husband in marriage, the Bible (Genesis 2:24) states “Therefore a man leaves his mother and his father and cleaves to his wife.” The ‘cleaves’ refers to a particularly strong attachment. More than anything else, a woman wants to know that her husband needs her, that he depends on her, that she matters greatly.

Women, typically rely on their husbands to feel safe and secure. There is nothing more valuable that a husband gives to his wife than the reassurance that he is there for her. Thus, when a husband becomes distant from his wife, or worse insults or humiliates her, he is betraying the foremost commitment that he has as a husband. When behaving angrily toward his wife, he is not ‘cleaving’ to her but quite the contrary he is separating himself from her and pushing her away.

That is why Judaism places such importance of speaking kindly towards one’s wife. The Talmud (Bava Metziah 59a) states: “One should always be heedful of wronging his wife, since her tears are frequent and she is easily hurt… One must always observe the honour due to his wife, because blessings rest on a man’s home only account of his wife… If your wife is short, bend down and take her counsel.” The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) further teaches: “A man should love his wife like himself and honour her more than himself”.

One of the three major obligations that Jewish law imposes upon a husband is conjugal duties (the other two cloths and food). Sexual activity between husband and wife ensure that the wife feels her husband is close and thus provides her the intimacy that she needs. Jewish law sets out very specific requirements, whereby the more a husband is available the greater his obligation to be intimate with his wife.

Moreover, in Judaism sex is a way of ensuring the husband is being kind and sensitive to his wife, for according to Jewish law it is forbidden for a couple to have sex if they have an unresolved argument. Thus, in the eyes of Jewish ethics discord between husband and wife is perceived as a matter of great regret and one that needs to be overcome as a matter of priority. We find that bringing peace between husband and wife is referred to as a particularly valued mitzvah (good deed) and one that is attributed to that great lover of peace, Aaron the High Priest.

The Talmud states (Ketubot 61b) read that even for Torah-study a husband may not absent himself from home for more than one month at a time – even if he has her permission – lest her agreement not be wholehearted. Thus, the first and foremost duty of a husband is to ensure intimacy and closeness. In practice, this means to avoid saying or doing anything that will make his wife feel rejected or distanced. If man upsets his wife, it is his duty to immediately take measures to restore harmony. It also means the husband doing all in his power to ensure that his wife feels valued and supported, loved and cherished. The rabbis go so far as to say that, “A woman prefers poverty with the affection of her husband to riches without it.” In Jewish ethics, treating a wife with respect is not a noble trait, it is the basic minimum.